Everyone Needs to Know How to Properly Clean Up a Broken Energy Efficient CFL Light Bulb

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL s)  are becoming more and more common in households across the US.  While breaks are not common, if and when a CFL light bulb breaks in your home, make sure you know what to do and are aware of what NOT to do.  You should not handle a CFL light bulp break the same way you handle a traditional break. In fact, you practically do the opposite of everything you would do when a traditional bulb breaks.  So, if you have children or are pregnant and have these bulbs in your house, please read and share this article.

CFL light bulbs are those spiral shaped, environmentally friendly light bulbs that require less electricity and last longer than traditional light bulbs.  By 2014, 30% of all light bulbs must be energy efficient and 70% by 2020. There are many benefits to these bulbs, including reduced energy bills, reduced landfill waste and reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants that produce the majority of our electricity. Energy efficiency, affordability and environmental stewardship are all important issues for me and many families. I strongly believe in the notion of making a big difference through little changes (like filtering water, recycling, participating in Meatless Monday, buying organic, using household brands that do not use toxic chemicals and have a commitment to the environment), so when I went out shopping for light bulbs, I didn’t think twice about spending a little more for the Energy Star approved, CFL light bulbs in the store.

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The problem is that each bulb contains about 5mg of elemental mercury.  Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain, kidneys, and liver. Recent research has linked mercury exposure to autism and other chronic diseases in children. Children and infants are especially sensitive to toxic poisoning because of their size and how their bodies absorb and metabolize toxins. Their immune, neurological, and hormone systems are all still developing and toxic exposure results in more significant complications to their health than in adults.

When broken, even the very small amount of mercury in these bulbs is enough to contaminate 6,000 gallons of water.  It is also (depending on the light bulb) equal to or double the chronic  .  Because your liver and kidneys can not process and eliminate this toxin, it accumulates in your body, contributing to your overall toxic body burden.  Continued exposure to mercury– even in very small amounts– can lead to  long lasting, chronic conditions over time.

Typically, when a light bulb breaks (because from time to time, they do break), the biggest health threat is from cuts in the feet or fingers from tiny shards of glass shattered in the break.  Everyone avoids the path while someone (we will assume mom right now, but it could also be Dad or Grandmom or an older child, etc.) deals with clean up as fast as possible.   She goes to put on shoes to protect from stepping on broken glass, retrieves the small broom and dust pan to sweep up the broken glass if it is on tile or wood or the vacuum if it is on glass and dumps the remains it in the kitchen trash.

Unfortunately, this is EXACTLY the WRONG cleanup protocol to follow.  In doing what you usually do, you have likely just committed 80% of the NEVER DO AFTER A CFL BREAK list. But you didn’t know.  You didn’t know because there is NO WARNING on the box to alert consumers that broken CFL bulbs must be handled differently from other bulbs when broken.

When a CFL bulb breaks, the biggest health threat is not from the broken shards of glass, but from the mercury vapors that are immediately emitted into the air. 

So, if you or anyone you know has CFL bulbs, or is a parent or grandparent, please pass along this information so that they know what to do and what not to do after a CFL break in their home.

What Never to Do After a CFL Break (From www.EPA.gov)

  • Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.
  • Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.
  • Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.
  • Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
  • Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded. By “direct contact,” we mean that mercury was (or has been) spilled directly on the clothing, for example, if you break a mercury thermometer and some of elemental mercury beads came in contact with your clothing.

And to add insult to injury, if your bulb broke on carpet you will have to replace the carpet, so that “financial savings” you hoped to realize by using a longer lasting, efficient light bulb just turned into a debt equal to the cost of replacing your carpet.

“Research performed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has shown that, after standard cleanup procedures, some residual mercury may remain on the carpet. If the carpet is in an area where young children or pregnant women may be exposed, it is advisable to cut out and replace the section of the carpet where the breakage occurred in order to remove any residual mercury.”

I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t use CFL bulbs, because using CFL bulbs reduces overall mercury pollution by reducing dependence on coal burning energy. The mercury created from coal-fired power plants winds up in rivers, streams, and oceans. However, using CFL’s transfers some responsibility and risk to the consumer. When we accept that responsibility and risk, we must be informed, clearly and on every package, how to handle, clean up and dispose of CFL bulbs properly.

Differences in safety concerns and clean up protocol for traditional bulbs (TB) vs. CFL bulbs include:

1. Ask everyone in proximity to freeze to prevent stepping in the glass pile (TB) vs. Ask everone to leave the room immediately to avoid exposure from toxic mercury vapors (CFL)

2. Clean up immediately (TB) vs. Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system and stay out of the room for at least 10 minutes

3. Wear shoes to protect from broken shards of glass (TB)  vs. Don’t wear shoes to prevent tracking mercury through the house (CFL)

4. Sweep glass shards into dustpan to pick up (TB) vs. NEVER sweep to prevent break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them

5. Vacuum or mop remaining tiny particles of glass (TB) vs. NEVER vacuum. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.

6. Wrap glass in paper towel or newspaper and throw away in trash can (TB) vs. Check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, dispose of the materials in your outside trash.

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Additionally, mercury especially dangerous to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, infants and young children. We warn moms not to clean the cat’s litter box, mother’s should also be warned about the dangers in a broken CFL light bulb.

This is why I’m asking the major CFL bulb makers to clearly label their products with safe clean up instructions. If space does not allow this, there should be a warning that bulb breaks must be handled differently from other light bulb. I am also asking YOU to help raise awareness among your friends, coworkers and family on how to handle the break in the first 5 – 10 minutes as this is the most dangerous time, especially if you follow the protocol for cleaning up a standard light bulb.

Safe Break Handling Instructions from the EPA  (From www.EPA.gov)

Before Cleanup

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  • Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  • Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb:
    • stiff paper or cardboard;
    • sticky tape;
    • damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
    • a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

During Cleanup

  • DO NOT VACUUM. Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.
  • Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  • Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After Cleanup

  • Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  • Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.
  • If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.

Please tell your friends, your teachers, your baby sitters and your kids that these light bulbs are different … and potentially dangerous. Any breaks must be handled with extreme care!  Sign the Petition!

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